Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Drink Your Gin-and-Tonukkah

Last night, as you may well know, was the first night of Chanukkah. My husband is mostly Jewish. I, on the other hand, do not even know how to spell Hanukah. (In my defense, it’s never spelled the same way twice. Can’t they standardize that sucker?)

For whatever reason, my husband celebrated secular Christmas growing up as well as Chanukah, and here in Seattle where there isn’t a super active Jewish culture, he downplays his Judaism. I’m the one out buying apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, the one securing us a Seder invite on Passover, the one making sure the turkey is kosher and the candles have been purchased for the menorah.

I did these things before we had an offspring, but they’ve gained a certain urgency since.

My daughter is more or less half Jewish. Her paternal grandfather is 100% Jewish. Her paternal grandmother is 50% by blood—but on her dad’s side, so 0% by religious tradition—and 100% by premarital conversion.

My daughter’s maternal grandmother is 0% Jewish by any measure, and her maternal grandfather is reportedly 25% Jewish by blood, but on his father’s mother’s side, so 0% by religious tradition and 0%, also, by any other tradition, as rural Iowan Great-Grandma Diehl apparently did not cop to being a Jew. All anyone knows about her is that she apparently made really great cookies.

I’ve tried to sort out exactly what percent Jewish my daughter is by blood (because fractions are fun!), but I always get muddled along the way. I think she’s 7/16ths, for whatever that’s worth. (She might also be one-one-zillionth Cherokee, but aren’t we all?) Basically, she’s half, though in a totally secular way so far, since neither her father nor I is religious.

When I explained a Christmas song to her the other day in which various animals share things with baby Jesus (some hay, some fleece, a dove-song, a ride to Bethlehem for his massively preggo mama), I found myself saying, “Christmas is about family and sharing and giving gifts and celebrating the birth of all the babies in the world.” Um… really? Since when? I attended a Quaker-founded college and am versed in the belief that “there is that of God in all of us,” but the idea that Christmas is celebrating ALL our birthdays is a bit much, even for the super-tolerant Quakers.

“Festival of lights,” I can get behind. I left the explaining of the Maccabees to the Chanukkah episode of the Shalom Sesame series—a series that is going to prove very useful, as my husband claims not to have much in the way of religious memory, even though he was (traumatically, I might add) Bar Mitztvahed during his parents’ brief orthodox phase.

“How do you pronounce Shammash?” I ask. “Is it Shah-MAWSH? SHAY-mish? SHAM-ish? And are there any traditional Hanukkah foods I could make besides latkes? And what does this prayer mean exactly?”

He shrugs and leaves the dreidel cookie I bought for him at the bakery for the two-year-old to have tomorrow.

The two-year-old is, of course, eating it all up. The candles, the prayer, the cookies, the tree, the decorations, the fudge, the gifts, the cookies, the advent calendar, the Christmas music. I fear she will grow up to be one of those kids they were talking about in the controversial Israeli “come back to the homeland, ye American Jews” advertising campaign who think that Chanukah is Christmas, such is the overlap of our traditions—not to mention decorations.

We’re thinking about sending her to a preschool program at the Jewish Cultural Center next year (or the next year or the next—godDAMN is there a lot of preschool when your kid starts at 22 months), largely because I get teary-eyed when I see the little kids on the website making challah.

The other day she came home from her current preschool, which has been adorned this month with snowflakes, menorahs, and a Christmas tree covered in pipe-cleaner ornaments and Mardi Gras beads, and I asked her if she wanted to play dreidel with me. I began singing, “Dreidel, dreidel, drei—”

“I made it out of play!” she finished proudly.

Birthday parties for all babies of the world and tops made out of play—the holidays have officially Arrived.

Happy Chrismukkah!

This essay also appears here as an Editor's Pick on Open Salon.

photo courtesy auntlaya, morgueFile


  1. *Loved* Shalom Sesame - our old library had the tapes but, sadly, the new one does not. Did you catch Sarah Jessica Parker in Jerusalem Jones and the Lost Affikomen? (Affikomen - now there's a word I can't pronounce).

    Traditional Hanukkah foods besides latkes? HELLO - donuts! Preferably of the jelly-filled variety. I've made my own, but it's just as easy to send hubby out for a box of Krispy Kremes.

    We're pretty much the opposite of you - celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah but we're religious and 0% Jewish. It's complicated, but we just explain: Jesus celebrated Hanukkah. It's in the Bible. Really.

  2. I came over here from OffbeatMama which is running your name-dilemma post (apparently 2 years after the fact!). It's funny that you write about this because I've been up to my neck in interfaith family/raising kids stuff of late. I'm Jewish by background and although my husband isn't converting he has agreed to have a Jewish home. No Christmas in this house, but beyond that it's tricky. We're still figuring out what Jewish Home means to us.

    Since we don't have kids yet it's a little bit easier, I don't feel too pressured to have a lot of explanations ready yet.

    It's funny that your husband downplays his Judaism in an area without a big Jewish presence, whereas I feel like I've gone into cultural-identification overdrive since we live in an area with no Jews and somehow it feels like it's down to me to keep traditions alive (cue Tevye).

    I recommend for some off-beat Mama-esque parenting reading. I don't believe in God, and the site is pretty evenhanded with opinions from JEWS! and Jew-ish Jews.

    Oh, and of course these days we have the Maccabeats:

    Sorry to write a novel on your blog! I hope you had a great time in Texas!

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and suggestions, Zan. Thankfully, the holiday mish-mash period is over, and we can concentrate on things one at a time for the next 11 months!